27 August 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 24, from Gruyères to Les Paccots

Time: 5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 975 metres
Height loss: 620 metres

Gruyères – Plan Francey – Les Paccots

It is really time that I returned to my cross-country walk, having neglected it completely since the second half of June. Since then I have done some interesting hikes around Lucerne and have spent two weeks crossing the central Pyrenees from west to east, and my motivation for the Alpine Panorama Trail has plummeted. The fact that I have to get to Gruyères to pick up the trail again doesn't help: it's a real pig of a place to get to from central Switzerland. Whichever way you do it takes three hours, of which at least 45 minutes is spent waiting for connections: you can get from Basel to Paris in the time it takes to get from Lucerne to Gruyères.

I need an early start, not only because of the journey to get to the starting point of the walk, but also because the day looks like being particularly warm: in fact it will turn out to be the hottest day of the summer. I force myself out of bed at six in the morning: it isn't even light yet, a sure sign that summer is about to slip into autumn. At seven I am on the train, heading towards Fribourg. The sun is just rising and throws long shadows across the landscape, illuminating the morning mist that has steeled in the hollows. After the mandatory 35-minute wait at Fribourg another train takes me to Bulle, then another to Gruyères, where I finally arrive at five past ten. It's already very warm indeed as I start to walk: I will definitely need my two litres of water today.

Somehow I miss a signpost right at the start, and end up walking on the road through the straggling village of Pringy, at the foot of the hill where the old centre of Gruyères huddles below its castle. Soon though I come across one of the familiar signs indicating the direction of national trail No. 3, and am back on track. The path climbs steeply up above the road, taking quite a while to finally break free of residential development and continue across the pastureland above. It is incredibly hot – I don't remember ever experiencing this kind of heat in the Swiss mountains before - and I take the climb really slowly. There is no air at all, it's a bit like opening the oven door and breathing in the blast of heat that comes out of it. There is very little shade, and I seek out every clump of trees as an opportunity to cool down a bit and drink.

Climbing up above Gruyères and looking back eastwards
Gradually, the view eastwards opens out, offering a wide panorama of the Fribourg Pre-Alps. The twin peaks of the Dent de Broc and the Dent du Chamois dominate the foreground, sticking up just above Gruyères and its castle. Further away, there is the Dent de Brenleire and its Matterhorn-imitating neighbour the Dent de Folliéran. Ahead of me is the great, rocky hulk of the Moléson: my walk will take me up to the base of its cliffs. Unfortunately, for pretty much the whole of today's stage the best views are behind me.

Heading towards Le Moléson
I come to a gate, on which is a sign indicating La Chenaudaz, 1256 m (marked as La Tsenôda on the map). I am surprised by the progress that I have made: I have been going for an hour and a quarter and have already climbed 500 metres since the start. My two weeks in the Pyrenees must have done wonders for my physical fitness! I stop here for a rest and a drink, saying hello to several walkers who pass me going downhill… I do not see any other idiots going uphill.

Above 1300 metres, there is a faint breeze and the air becomes slightly more breathable. The going remains extremely hot and sweaty though, as I continue less steeply uphill, passing a number of typical Gruyère-style farmhouses where, no doubt, the production of cheese is in full swing. As I get closer to Plan Francey (1517 m, the day's highest point), the rocky north face of the Moléson becomes ever more imposing, a massive wall of grey stone that is visible for miles around. Funnily enough though, this great bastion of a mountain is the final outlier of the Swiss Alps on the north side of Lake Geneva: beyond here are only gentle wooded hills and vineyard-covered slopes.

Le Moléson is the last outpost of the Swiss Alps on this side of Lake Geneva
I reach Plan-Francey at 12:35 after two and a half hours' walking: despite the heat, I have completed the day's uphill work in a shorter time than that indicated at the start of the walk. Now I need to find a nice spot for lunch, and it absolutely has to be in the shade. I do not linger at Plan-Francey with its cable car station, busy restaurant and multitude of paths in all directions, but continue westwards, dropping steeply down below the Moléson's north face. Above me, I can hear the shouts of invisible climbers who are no doubt having fun on one of the mountain's two via ferrets. 

Lots of signposts and paths at Plan-Francey

The north face of Le Moléson, 2002 m
After about a quarter of an hour, just past the chalet of Petit Plané (1478 m), I find what I am looking for. Just to the right of the path is a gentle, grassy slope at the edge of a little thicket of trees, offering just the right amount of shade. For lunch, I have made a salad of pasta, ham and tomatoes, with cheese to accompany it. I realise that I have brought along a big hunk of Appenzeller cheese, which is very politically incorrect: whether it is strictly allowed to eat Appenzeller cheese on the slopes of the Moléson is very debatable… just nobody tell all the local Gruyère producers that I did it! I complete my lunch break with a half-hour siesta, during which I have to move several times as my patch of shade changes position. I still manage to doze off though, and would have happily stayed there longer were it not for the fact that I still have two hours' walking to do, and my bus from Les Paccots leaves in just over two hours.

I set off again, following an almost level farm track that traverses below the Moléson's cliffs. The whole of today's stage is on easy farm tracks, making it one of the technically easiest stages of the whole Alpine Panorama Trail. At the isolated chalet of Gros Plané (1476 m), a baby pokes its head out from under a parasol and offers me a big smile. I drop down into a little valley where, once again, the heat becomes intense. Ahead and to me left is the rocky summit of Teysachaux (1909 m), the Moléson's western outlier which I climbed four or five years ago, the last time I was in this area.

Beyond the chalet of Le Villard-Dessous (1429 m), the rough farm track becomes a road: the remaining hour and a half of today's walk will unfortunately all be on hard-surfaced roads. A short climb brings me to the saddle of Villard-Dessus (1459): here, as is the case on many occasions along the Alpine Panorama Trail, a whole new range of mountains suddenly appears for the first time. The difference this time though is that these mountains are French, and are on the far side of Lake Geneva. Away to the west, a small piece of the lake itself is briefly visible. These mountains and the lake are the clearest sign yet that I am approaching the end of my crossing of Switzerland, although Geneva itself is still a few days' walk away. 

The distant mountains that appear at Le Villard-Dessus are on the French side of Lake Geneva
Teysachaux seen from La Pudze
Hotter and hotter, the road drops down below the slopes of Teysachaux towards the valley. At a bend in the road, the sound of water being pumped is coming from underground. An information panel explains that the hydraulic pump is a model that was invented by one of the Montgolfier brothers in 1790: the brothers are better known as the inventor of the hot-air balloon. The pump is used to convey water from a spring located at an altitude of 1340 metres to farmhouses two hundred metres higher up the mountainside, using no energy other than that produced by the pressure of the water itself… a very ingenious system!

At La Pudze (1208 m), the lowest of the chalets served by this water distribution system, a signpost clearly indicates that I should turn left past the farmhouse. There is no sign of any path though, just a field of weeds running away to the edge of the forest. The family sitting outside the farmhouse shows no sign of offering to show me the way, so I carry on along the road. Another 45 minutes or so of hot road walking brings me to the terminus of the bus route at Les Rosalys, at the eastern end of the little ski resort of Les Paccots. The bus does not leave for another half an hour but there does not seems to be anywhere in the immediate vicinity to get a beer: there is also no bench to sit on, so I just sit on the pavement until the bus arrives, at least it's in the shade.

Despite the imposing cliffs of the Moléson seen close at hand, this has been one of the less interesting stages of the Alpine Panorama Trail. The intense heat has not helped, nor have the harsh light and the heat haze which would challenge even a good photographer, never mind an amateur like me. Having got this far, I must of course finish the walk, even if my motivation level is not particularly high. Beyond Les Paccots I will leave the mountains behind; the remaining five stages will offer a very different kind of scenery, which in itself should be a good thing. I'm going to wait for the temperature to drop a bit though

17 July 2016

Two cable cars and a perfect mountain lake: from Chilcherberge to Unterschächen over the Seewligrat

Time: 5 hours 45 minutes
Grading: T2+
Height gain: 1300 metres
Height loss: 900 metres

Chilcherberge – Seewli – Seewligrat – Sittlisalp - Unterschächen 

Right in the heart of central Switzerland, Canton Uri is known not only for its mountain scenery, but also for the numerous little cable cars that transport hikers up from the deep, shady valley bottoms to the sunny hillsides above. This full day’s walk links two of those cable cars, passing a superb mountain lake along the way.

Last week brought a sudden and unexpected cold snap, with snow falling as low down as 2,000 metres, quite unusual for mid-July. Temperatures started to rise again on Saturday and a hot, sunny Sunday is forecast. An early start seems like a good idea to make the most of the morning freshness, and so I am at the station shortly after 7 in the morning, catching a train to Erstfeld followed by a short hop on a packed bus to Silenen. To my surprise, I am the only person to get off there, and it is through deserted village streets and past closed restaurants that I make my way slowly up to the bottom station of the Chilcherberge cable car. I ask the cable car operator if I am likely to encounter snow on the way over to Unterschächen. Probably yes, he says: on the north side of the Seewligrat ridge there will be snow, but the slopes are not dangerous and I will be able to have a bit of fun sliding down and trying to stay on my feet. It sounds promisingly adventurous…

This cable car is an adventure in itself. Capable of transporting just four people at a time, it is little more than a glorified chairlift. It has a roof, but the sides are completely open, with just a low partition to prevent the occupants from falling out. It’s a steep ride up, climbing 600 metres in a little over five minutes, high up above the trees… either a good head for heights or closed eyes are an absolute requirement!

The Silenen - Chilcherberge cable car... not for the faint-hearted...
The cable car brings me to Chilcherberge, 1155 m, just two or three isolated chalets on a steep Alpine pasture. At 8:45 in the morning, these west-facing slopes are still completely in the shade, as the sun has not yet risen above the mountains that tower above the valley. This shade will give me an agreeably cool start to the walk, no bad thing since the first two hours will be steeply uphill. To the south, the most prominent feature of the view is the Bristen, its pyramid glistening as the morning sun catches the fresh snow that has fallen on it during the last two or three days.

The Bristen, seen from above Chilcherberge
A steep, winding path takes me uphill away from the cable car station, first across mountain pastures, then zigzagging up through dense forest. The gradient is regular, and I gain altitude surprisingly quickly. Although this is a popular hiking area, the fact that the cable car only drops off four people every six minutes means that there is never any sense of there being a lot of other walkers on the path, just occasional couples and solo hikers here and there. The path leads me up to the base of a rocky tower (1789 m), where a signpost points off to the Hexensteig via ferrata… definitely not for me. By the side of the path, a jug has been placed on the ground in such a way as to catch spring water gushing out from the rocks, a nice gesture for the tired, thirsty walker. The path winds its way up to the base of a huge, overhanging cliff, which it avoids to the left before emerging into the sunlight and onto more gentle slopes of grass, where I stop to munch a cereal bar and to drink. I am pleased with the progress I have made: 800 metres of height gain in less than two hours is not bad going at all.

At an altitude of about 2,000 metres, the path levels out and heads into a side valley, leaving behind the main Reuss valley that heads up towards the St. Gotthard pass. The Bristen disappears from view and, ahead, a fascinating collection of new mountains appears; black, jagged towers of rock dusted with fresh snow. The path now and runs horizontally eastwards, with a substantial, near vertical drop to the left: not in any way difficult but slightly airy, you would definitely not want to go over the edge here. I cross a rushing stream just below a beautiful waterfall that comes splashing over a rocky shelf, sending multiple shimmering strands of water down into the pool at its base.

Waterfall just below the Seewli
A few minutes after passing the waterfall, and about two and a half hours after leaving the cable car, I reach the mountain lake of Seewli (a not very original name given that it simply means “little lake”). It is in fact a fairly substantial body of water – maybe 300 metres long and 10 wide - and is absolutely magnificent, running away north-eastwards towards the snowy point of the Schwarz Stöckli and bounded on its eastern side by the high, black walls of the Gross Windgällen. The lake itself is a turquoise green mirror in which the surrounding mountains are reflected. A few fishermen dot the shore while, here and there, small groups of walkers lie on the grassy slopes above the water, eating lunch or just enjoying the sun. The setting is absolutely perfect, and the tranquillity is total. I find a nice spot in the grass, looking eastwards towards the U-shaped pass between the Schwarz Stöckli and the Gross Windgällen, and eat my sandwiches while studying my onward route. I can see the path making its way diagonally up the grassy slopes below the Seewligrat ridge; it looks like there are still some significant patches of snow up there, and I wonder what I will encounter on the more shady, northern side of the ridge. In the meantime though, I lay back and enjoy a half-hour siesta, eyes closed, disturbed only by the buzzing of insects as they land on the numerous Alpine flowers that are growing all around.

I set off again at about a quarter to one: it was an early lunch, but I had breakfast at six in the morning and the location was too good to pass by. It’s a 200-metre climb up to the crest of the Seewligrat, and in my post-lunch state of lethargy it proves to be a bit of a slog. The path is steep and eroded, made slippery by the water running off the fast-melting snow. Higher up there is some snow on the path itself, especially in the gullies created by erosion, where it has accumulated and is melting more slowly. I pass a couple coming down from the ridge, and ask them what conditions are like on the other side. No problem at all, the man replies to me in heavily English-accented German, there is no more snow than on this side. We exchange a few words about where we are going and how long it will take to get there.

The Seewli seen from the path up to the Seewligrat ridge
It takes me about 40 minutes from the lakeside to the crest of the Seewligrat ridge, the highest point of the day (and the highest I have reached so far this year) at 2244 metres. Behind me, the Seewli has retreated to a turquoise heart-shaped blot in the distance, below the huge black walls of the Windgällen. In front of me is the Griesstal valley into which I must now descend, backed by the long, flat-topped Hoch Fulen. It’s a wild landscape with a real “mountain” feel to it despite the modest altitude, a wildness no doubt reinforced by the presence of snow.

A wild landscape at the Seewligrat, highest point of the walk
The slopes on the northern side of the pass are less steep than those up which I have just come. There is quite a lot of snow on the ground in places, but the path is completely clear: in fact, it is operating temporarily as a stream, draining the melting snow off towards the valley. The sun is directly behind me and is casting a very dark shadow against the snowy surroundings, preventing me from really seeing on what kind of potentially treacherous ground I might be stepping. I descend slowly and carefully, not wanting to risk a twisted ankle. I reach the valley bottom at the isolated Alpine farm of Vorder Griesstal, 1906 m. Just before the farm buildings, I have to pass through a large herd of cows which includes a surprising number of small calves. Not wanting to come between any over-protective mothers and their young, I give the herd a wide berth.

The Griesstal is a truly wild valley, running upwards from east to west towards the bleak, rocky Stich pass. Eastwards, beyond the farm's outbuildings, a huge wall of black, snow-dusted rock thrusts itself up towards the blue sky: this is the 3137-metre Gross Ruchen, a really imposing block of stone. I briefly follow a dusty farm access track, before a grassy path strikes off to the left, contouring ever higher above the valley as it drops away to the east. 

Vorder Griesstal
Now I reach the end of the Griesstal, and the path turns north into the Brunnital valley, which runs down towards the village of Unterschächen, the destination of my day's walk. Maintaining a fairly constant altitude of around 1650 metres, the path clings to the steep mountainside, crossing a series of gullies where erosion and small landslides have eaten into the available width for walking. A minimum of care is needed here. Behind me, southwards, the Brunnital is abruptly closed by one of the most impressive amphitheatres of rock I can remember seeing, plunging more than 1500 vertical metres down from the summits high above to the valley bottom below, across cliffs, rocky terraces, bands of snow and slopes of scree. I had no idea that there was anything like this just an hour's drive from home. Somewhere high above, the ominous sound of falling stones makes me glad of the deep valley in between the wall of rock and my viewpoint. I pass through another large herd of cows; these ones do not seem particularly pleased by my presence on their grass, and there is a fair bit of mooing and posturing as I walk past them.

The imposing headwall of the Brunnital
The path brings me to the first chalets of Sittlisalp, a series of Alpine hamlets strung out along a flat terrace high above the valley bottom. A junction of paths at 1650 metres gives me a choice of routes for the remainder of my walk: either I can walk down to Brunni then follow the valley bottom north to Unterschächen, or I can stay at my present altitude for another half an hour and descend to the valley by means of another one of those little cable cars. A sign advertising a mountain restaurant at the top station of the cable car helps to sway me: I go for the second option, although it's hard to say if the choice is motivated by a quest for altitude or for beer. The path becomes a broad farm track which links the hamlets, passing a mixture of farm and holiday chalets along the way. I see more people now, and find myself following a group composed of children and five brown goats who seem to have decided to escort them to the cable car station.

I reach the cable car at half past three and enjoy a large glass of beer in the shade, while the owner of the café, a friend and two young children play Scrabble or something similar at the next table. The cable car comes and goes, the goats come and go, all of this against the phenomenal backdrop of the Brunnital's headwall. I finish my beer and take the cable car down into the valley: a vertiginous 500-metre drop, almost vertical and with no intermediate pylons. The cable car is more refined than this morning's, with a proper cabin, but it still only transports four people at a time. Inside the top station, photos show that until the turn of the century, it was operated by the same kind of open cars as the Chilcherberge cableway… now that must have been a real experience!

Looking down from the top of the Sittlisalp cable car... now that is steep!
My transport arrives...
From the bottom station, it's a 20-minute walk down the valley road to Unterschächen. The river that runs down the valley is a magnificent, foaming torrent that jumps around and over rocks, while people sunbathe on the grassy banks and paddle in the shallows. Last time I was in Unterschächen, almost exactly six years ago, it was a miserable grey, foggy and wet day, and I got chased by a cow. Today the valley is green, the sky is a perfect blue and the village feels friendly and appealing, an altogether different place. 

It has been one of the best days in the mountains for a while, and a hike that really had everything one could wish for. For anybody looking for a strenuous day's walking in central Switzerland with proper mountain scenery but no serious technical difficulties, this route would be hard to beat.

03 July 2016

A day on the Stanserhorn

Time: 6.5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 860 metres
Height loss: 1500 metres

Wirzweli – Ächerli – Stanserhorn - Stans

Once again the weekend has refused me the two successive days of good weather I need to continue my Alpine Panorama Trail walk, with yet another wet washout of a Saturday. Sunday looks like it will be ideal for hiking though, with early cloud clearing to a sunny afternoon. I decide on a local hike and a late start to make the most of the good weather. Although the Stanserhorn is one of the Lucerne area's classics, I had not yet walked up it during the four and a half years since I moved to the area. This first weekend in July provides me with a good opportunity to fill the gap.

It doesn't take long to get to the starting point of the walk in the little mountain resort of Wirzweli, no more than a cluster of holiday chalets and restaurants on a sunny plateau at an altitude of 1200 metres, reached by cable car from Dallenwil. I start walking just before eleven; the sun has already burned off most of the cloud, although the summit of the Stanserhorn itself is still just about hidden under a blanket of cumulus. Also invisible in the cloud is the Arvigrat, my destination last time I was in these parts back in November.

The Stanserhorn seen from Wirzweli, not yet totally free of cloud
For the first half an hour of the walk, I follow the same route as on that beautiful autumn day, before branching off northwards to follow a succession of farm lanes until I reach the broad saddle of Ächerli, 1396 m, between the Arvigrat and the Stanserhorn. Following the ridge northwards and gently uphill, I soon come to a whitewashed chapel at Ober Holzwang, almost completely hidden in the trees above a precipice that plunges down to the valley above Kerns, to the west. Beyond the valley, the Pilatus has managed to attract most of the cloud that is still hanging over central Switzerland, its rocky summit completely hidden. To the east, beyond meadows that are full of colourful alpine flowers, the snowy tops of the mountains above the Engelberg valley have broken free of their cloudy blanket.

The mountains of the Engelbert valley, seen from just above Ächerli
The path passes through a small wooded area, then runs horizontally across the flanks of a grassy bowl, above green slopes that descend steeply eastwards towards the alpine hamlet of Wiesenberg. A short climb brings me to the point marked on the map as Huserli, where a small, isolated chalet stands atop a grassy spur that runs down from the Chli Horn. Although I have only been walking for 90 minutes, it is already half past twelve and the spot is ideal for lunch. It is no surprise that I am not alone in deciding to stop here: the Stanserhorn is a popular mountain, and I share my lunch spot with maybe twenty other walkers, in small groups of two or three. The south-eastward view towards the Walenstöcke and the distant Titlis is magnificent.

Between Holzwang and Huserli, the path contours above steep, grassy slopes
Alpine flowers at Huserli
Above Huserli, the more serious part of the day's climb begins. The 300 metres from here up to the summit are steep; first of all up the southern edge of the Chrinnen ravine, then in ever-steeper zigzags across the southern face of the Stanserhorn itself. Towards the top of the climb, the path runs above steep cliffs and is secured with fixed cables and handrails; it is not unlike the track that goes up the Grosser Mythen. Just below the summit, a long flight of metal stairs provides an efficient if not very aesthetic route up the final steep section.

The final steep, narrow section of the path is well secured with fixed cables
I reach the 1897-metre summit of the Stanserhorn shortly before two o'clock, after about two and a half hours' walking. The viewing platform at the mountain's highest point is crowded, mostly with tourists who have come up from Stans by cable car to admire the extensive view which takes in a significant part of Lake Lucerne. I have yet to discover a point from which the entire lake is visible, but the Stanserhorn makes a reasonable attempt at showing at least the northern end of the lake in its entirety.

Looking north over Lake Lucerne from the summit
The Titlis seen from the summit of the Stanserhorn
My guidebook describes the northern route down to Stans as uninteresting and recommends the use of the cable car, but I decide to walk down. One of the main purposes of today's hike is to start to build up a semblance of physical fitness: in a normal year, I would be in top form by now, but the spring weather simply has not given me the opportunity. With less than a month to go before a strenuous two-week hiking holiday in the Pyrenees, I badly need to get some walking under my belt.

As it turns out, the 1,500 metres of descent to Stans are, for the most part, interesting and scenic. By the packed terrace of the restaurant below the summit, a signpost indicates that it will take me three and a half hours to walk down; this is somewhat overestimated, and I complete the descent in three hours. Initially the path follows the Stanserhorn's narrow, grassy east ridge, rather unnecessarily protected on both sides by handrails. I overtake a German couple who are engaged in a complex-looking photo session; she striking extravagant poses (pointing at distant hills, cupping her hand over her eyes to shade them from the sun and so on), while he directs her actions from a few metres away. We will overtake each other all the way down to Stans as we stop for photo and drinks breaks.

Leaving the Stanserhorn along its east ridge
There have been a lot of people on the path until now, but beyond the junction of tracks at Rinderalp, 1635 m, things become a lot quieter. The afternoon is advancing and the procession of people who have set off from Stans in mid-morning has dried up. The path runs through forest below steep slopes where signs warn of possible rockfall, then contours below a steep, grassy cone to reach the isolated chalet of Blatti, perched high above the valley at an altitude of 1566 metres. This whole section of the walk is almost horizontal; indeed, the gradient of the whole descent is quite gentle, which probably explains why so much time is needed. It makes the whole thing considerably easier on the legs though. 

Below Blatti, the path zigzags across steep, wooded slopes

Below Blatti, the path continues quite gently downhill in a series of long, long east-west zigzags, each of which takes maybe twenty minutes to walk. The path is wide enough not to be dangerous, but the slopes above which it runs are extremely steep and care is needed not to slip, especially given that in some shady places the gooing underfoot is very greasy and slippery. I descend mostly through forest, although there are plenty of openings in the trees that give views northwards towards Lucerne. I pass an isolated house marked on the map as Ahornhütte, 1440 m, where loudish rock music coming from inside does not quite seem in keeping with the location. Further down, the farm of Chalcherli, set in a wide clearing, marks the end of the mountainous terrain and the start of the easier farm tracks that will take me the rest of the way down to Stans. Not far above the village, a sudden waft of freshly-mown grass hits me with an odd and unexpected wave of nostalgia for northern France, where I once lived: that was exactly the smell of the golf course at Saint-Saëns where I spent many a long summer evening in the mid 1990s. To the north-west, the cloud has finally cleared from the Pilatus as the afternoon turns into a beautiful early evening.

Almost back down...
I reach Stans at five o'clock. The village square is an attractive one, with several restaurants and a large church, in front of which a huge statue depicts an act of what looks like gratuitous violence… I have no idea what it is supposed to represent, but it doesn't look very friendly, so I waste no time in heading for the station and escaping back to Lucerne on the next available train!

Scenes of domestic violence in Stans

25 June 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 23, from Broc to Gruyères

Time: 1.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 180 metres
Height loss: 150 metres

Broc - Gruyères

My Alpine Panorama Trail walk has ground to a halt since I arrived in Broc on 1st June. Three successive weekends of truly awful weather have prevented me from continuing: I was expecting to have completed the walk by now, but it was a hopelessly over-optimistic wish.

I have booked a hotel room in Les Paccots for Saturday evening, and am determined to make some real progress this weekend, with two long days' walking. The next two stages of the trail are the last in what could really be described as mountainous terrain, before reaching the much gentler countryside along Lake Geneva for the final four days' walking.

It has been a hot, sunny week but once again, the weather forecast for the weekend is not really compatible with hiking in the mountains. Saturday will be thundery, with the satellite picture showing a big, ugly set of storms running across the region some time during mid to late afternoon. To be honest, only the fact that my hotel room is booked (having already been cancelled two weekends ago for weather-related reasons) pushes me to give it a go anyway.

The view from the train to Broc does not give me too many reasons to be confident about the outcome of the day. The sky over the Fribourg Pre-Alps is an unpleasant purple-black colour, although there is plenty of much friendlier-looking blue above the lower-lying regions. I actually start walking under an uncomfortably hot sun in Broc, where I get off the train at twenty past ten.

Almost immediately, things go wrong. I follow the waymarking for national route No. 3 out of the village, crossing fields of long grass which, after the heavy rain of the last 24 hours, soon soak my trouser legs. Up ahead, I can hear the buzzing of what sounds like a whole army of chainsaws: there must be some serious forestry activity going on. Then I top a grassy crest, and see that the source of the noise is not saws, but motorbikes. There is a motocross competition going on, and the circuit crosses the footpath, blocking it completely. Bikes are slithering up and down muddy banks, churning the ground into a black mess as they roar round the circuit. I ask a marshal if there is any way through, but the answer is no: I will have to retrace my steps all the way back to Broc and find an alternative route. The diversion causes me a delay of 45 minutes; minutes which I suspect may have been precious in my race against the afternoon thunderstorms.

The alternative route leads me past Broc's municipal swimming pool, then along a muddy path that runs alongside the fast-flowing river Sarine. The path leads me along the perimeter of the motocross circuit, unseen because of the trees but most definitely not unheard. I have to keep getting out of the way of mountain bikers, who I do not see coming because of the racket made by the motorbikes.

"Le pont qui branle"
The riverside path eventually brings me to a place marked on the map as Le pont qui branle, which could be translated as "Rickety Bridge". Rickety it may have been in some distant past, but today's bridge is a solid wooden structure, covered and completely enclosed apart from two small openings that give a view out to the fast-flowing river. On the west bank of the Sarine now, a lane leads me to the foot of the hill on top of which stands the village of Gruyères, one of Switzerland's big tourist hotspots, dominated by its castle. I cross the main road that runs round the foot of the hill, then climb steeply up a cobbled path towards one of the ancient gates in the walls that surround the village. Just before midday I reach the village square at the top of the hill, with its restaurants, fountains and hordes of selfie-snapping tourists.

Climbing up towards Gruyères
Up ahead, the view should be dominated by the 2,002-metre summit of the Moléson, but the weather has taken a turn for the worse and the mountain is covered in thick, black cloud. The blue sky that seemed to be making a good attempt to win some ground an hour ago has disappeared completely; rain and thunderstorms are very obviously not far off. I have a decision to make now: I still have another five hours' walking to cover today, I need to climb up to Plan Francey at an altitude of more than 1500 metres, then traverse below the north-western cliffs of the Moléson and its neigbour Teysachaux before dropping down to Les Paccots. Though not difficult terrain by any stretch of the imagination, it will be very much exposed to whatever weather the sky decides to chuck at the Moléson, and opportunities for shelter will be few and far between. 

The only sensible decision is to abandon the walk in Gruyères, from where at least I can get home easily. I call the Auberge du Lac des Joncs in Les Paccots, cancel my reservation but offer to pay anyway; an offer which is declined by the very friendly woman who answers the phone. I have just missed a train and have to wait 55 minutes for the next one: all in all, by the time I get home, I will have spent seven hours either sitting on trains or waiting for them for barely 90 minutes' walking, of which more than an hour was spoilt by the noise of motorbikes. There have been better days…

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01 June 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 22, from Jaun to Broc

Time: 4.25 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 330 metres
Height loss: 650 metres

Jaun – Charmey - Broc

After the previous leg which took me to the highest point of the Alpine Panorama Trail and into some proper mountain scenery, this one is a complete contrast, and is the easiest of the whole route so far. The walk follows the bottom of a valley from the hills down to the plains, and is dominated by water. Another short stage, it is divided into three very distinct sections: firstly along the bank of the river Jogne, then round a lake and finally through a deep gorge. It's a cloudy morning and although I will have no rain, I will not see the sun all day either. However, it still looks like being the best that the weather will manage during the second week of my holiday, and I have decided to make the most of a bad job and walk anyway.

I take the train to Bulle, then a bus up the valley to Jaun. This bus ride basically follows the route that I am about to walk in the opposite direction, which feels a bit strange and somehow breaks the continuity of the trail. Because of the time it takes to get to Jaun, it's half past eleven before I start walking. I go down to the riverside beside the waterfall and the little whitewashed church, not bothering to visit the graveyard as recommended as a gardener is noisily cutting the grass with a strimmer. The Jaunbach (which will become the Jogne a little way downstream) is flowing fast and clear, big stones on its bed showing through the rushing, transparent water.

The Jaunbach at Jaun
For the first two hours of today's walk, I follow the river downstream, most of the time under shady trees right on its bank. There has been quite a bit of rain over the last few days (I seem to be writing that a lot, don't I?) and the path is greasy and slippery, where not downright muddy. The route switches regularly from one bank to the other, over strong bridges designed to bear the weight of farm traffic. I will be crossing some much more fragile specimens later today. The road that also runs down the valley keeps at a safe distance and I am never really aware of its presence, unlike I was when walking from Zollhaus up to Schwarzsee.

Beyond the riverside screen of trees, the valley is working: wood and stone seem to be important elements of the local economy. In the village of Im Fang, long lines of planks are piled up beside the road, while on three different occasions I will pass by quarries where heavy machinery is being used to smash and grind rock which will be used to build roads and reinforce embankments.

Im Fang is the last German-speaking village crossed by the Alpine Panorama Trail, and the close proximity of the linguistic frontier is shown by the fact that road signs are in both German and French. At some invisible point between Im Fang and Charmey, I will cross the mythical "Rösti barrier" that separates Switzerland's linguistic communities, and the remaining stages of the walk will all be in Francophone territory, making reserving hotels and ordering beers just that little bit more comfortable. I pass a village football pitch which looks like it has not been mown for a long time, and whose goals stick up above a white, yellow and mauve sea of wild flowers. The whole of today's walk is in fact very colourful, with the meadows all full of an infinite variety of flowers. Shortly before the place marked on the map as Pra Jean (which already sounds a lot more French), a sign hanging from a fence appears to be warning me about the possibility of unexploded bombs, which would be a very unlikely thing to find in this rural place. Maybe the locals have laid a minefield across the linguistic frontier?

The linguistic divide is not far away...

... but it seems to be protected by minefields!
At Les Fornis, I cross the river again and briefly leave its bank, as the path heads north across a grassy pasture. Ahead of me is a very wild-looking valley that runs off northwards: one of my old guidebooks describes it (in French) as "the Valley of the Dead, known for its vipers and its avalanches"… luckily, the Alpine Panorama Trail does not go that way! I continue along a quiet backwater of stagnant water, fed by a little waterfall which then rejoins the main river. This backwater is not marked on the map, and is presumably a consequence of the recent rainy weather. 

A wild side valley at Les Fornis
It is not much further to Charmey, the valley's main community. It's a busy little resort town, complete with a thermal spa complex and three or four hotels along the main street (although one of these looks like it has been closed for a while with sad-looking dusty, curtainless windows). Beyond here, the gentle riverside stroll ends and I begin the second part of today's walk, along the northern side of the Lac de Montsalvens.

Montsalvens is an artificial lake, created by the damming of the Jogne a couple of kilometres west of Charmey. Despite being man-made, it is however very beautiful, with its green water and mountain backdrop. I walk down a steep lane which becomes a steep, muddy path, dropping down to cross an arm of the lake on a frail-looking suspension bridge. The surface of the lake is absolutely calm; the water is a rich, vegetal green in which the dense forest that surrounds the lake is reflected. The suspension bridge itself takes me by surprise by swaying quite a bit when I step onto it: anyone who does not like these bridges might not be very comfortable with this. The banks of the lake are steep and wooded, so there is no continuous view across to the far side. A quarter of an hour after crossing the bridge, a picnic table positioned opposite an opening in the foliage enables me to eat my sandwiches while enjoying the view. The sense of peace and quiet is remarkable here, given the close proximity of the road. 

Lac de Montsalvens
  Soon after setting off again after lunch, I reach the western end of the lake, and the dam. From the southern end of the dam, there is a superb view back eastwards across the whole lake. It is a landscape made up entirely of tones of green and grey – at least today – and is very beautiful indeed.

Looking east from the Montsalvens dam
The dam marks the point of transition between the second and third parts of the walk. Immediately west of the dam, the path plunges steeply down into the deep gorge beyond, slithering down over stones above a big drop down to rushing water. Luckily there is a wooden handrail to hold on to, as the path is very slipper and you would not want to fall over the edge. At the bottom of this steep descent, I cross the river on the first of several fragile-looking footbridges, high above the wild river just downstream from a loud waterfall that seems to be coming straight out of the cliff face. The next half an hour is a succession of tunnels and footbridges, sometimes high above the river, sometimes almost down at the level of the water. I go off into a bit of a daydream, already mentally writing this blog post, and get the fright of my life when I almost walk straight into a group of about 10 people coming the other way. They must have found the jump that I made on seeing them very funny. I cross another bridge to the far side of the gorge (the one looks very rickety indeed), walk through one last tunnel, and then the valley opens out and the gorge is behind me.

In the Jogne gorge
The narrow path becomes a broad track, which I follow up to join the main road: I have been walking parallel to it for the last four hours, but have hardly seen it at all except in the villages. There is a strange, sweet smell in the air which I cannot quite place, until I see a roadside sign welcoming me to Broc – la Ville du Chocolat. At which point, the source of the smell becomes obvious: Broc has a large chocolate factory, which attracts tourists from all over the world for a glimpse of how Swiss chocolate is made. 

My guidebook would have me continue to the hilltop town of Gruyères for the end of this stage. But with the additional walking time plus the more awkward transport connections back to Lucerne, this would mean me getting home two hours later, at nine in the evening. And so I decide to stop at Broc for today, and tack the extra hour and a quarter's walk to Gruyères onto the start of the next stage. Only two more "mountain" stages remain now before the Alpine Panorama rail reaches Lake Geneva and a completely different kind of landscape. I will have to do these two stages together with an overnight stay, simply because the transport logistics of getting to Les Paccots from Lucerne are a nightmare. And, given that there is no accommodation available in Les Paccots this coming weekend because of a mountain marathon, it will be ten days before I can do them. I wanted to reach at least Lausanne by the end of my two-week holiday: thanks to this lack of accommodation and to the unseasonably bad weather, I have fallen three days short of my objective.

26 May 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 21, from Schwarzsee to Jaun

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 740 metres
Height loss: 770 metres

Schwarzsee – Brecca – Euschelspass - Jaun

I am woken at half past five by the tinkling of cowbells on the hillside above the hotel where I have spent the night at Schwarzsee. I nod off to sleep again, before finally getting up at 7:45. Today's walk will be short – probably no more than three and a half hours – and I can afford to take it easy. My only constraint is that I really need to be at Jaun in time for the 15:30 bus, which will get me home at about half past seven in the evening. I go out onto the terrace to inspect the weather conditions. There is blue sky to the west, but it's still cloudy overhead. The surface of the lake seems to be absorbing all the darkness of the clouds, amply meriting its name.

The hotel's breakfast room is vast and functional, but somewhat dated and rather soulless. I am surprised to see how many other people are there, many more than I saw in the restaurant yesterday evening. Mostly speaking French and wearing suits and ties, it looks like all these people are here for a conference rather than for the great outdoors. As I eat my breakfast, the background conversation revolves around e-learning and workflows; it's a slightly odd reminder of what kind of thing I would normally be doing on a day like today. The radio is still stuck in yesterday's rather melancholy 1980s groove, with Abba's The day before you came being immediately followed by Elton John's Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

A sunny morning at Schwarzsee
I finish breakfast, pack up my stuff and, at 9, am ready to check out. The receptionist asks me where I am going, and I briefly tell her about my Alpine Panorama Trail project. She seems to know what I am talking about, says that I must have come from Guggisberg yesterday (which I did), and recommends that I visit the cemetery in Jaun where, she says, each grave bears not just the name but also the profession of its occupant. The clouds have cleared completely by the time I am ready to start walking; the surface of the lake is absolutely calm and the reflection of the surrounding mountains on the water is perfect. Two pedal boats shaped like white swans are moored to the wooden jetty, presumably waiting for the visit of Galadriel and a host of elves.

The Alpine Panorama Trail has a tendency to seek out the path of least resistance, going for the most direct and easiest option even when it might be to the detriment of the scenery. Today is a glorious exception though: the signpost at the northern end of the lake indicates only 2 hours 50 minutes to Juan by the shortest route, but national route No. 3 takes a much longer way round; maybe because the day's walk would simply be too short otherwise. Today is a public holiday in canton Fribourg and there are lots more people around than yesterday. As I walk southwards down the eastern bank of the lake, I pass quite a few people hiking, jogging or fishing. Above my left shoulder, the steep flank of the Kaiseregg still looks cold and uninviting. I wonder again if I will find snow at the Euschelspass: I have walked over it twice before; once on snowshoes in the middle of winter, the second time in May 2010, when I set off from Schwarzsee in pouring rain which turned to snow halfway up to the top of the pass.

I reach the southern end of the lake and follow a stony path that climbs through woodland alongside a noisy stream. The wet stones are slippery in the extreme, making me regret having chosen my old walking boots for these two days: their soles have lost most of their tread and grip. I pass an isolated chalet in a clearing (Spicherweid, 1105 m), then drop down to cross the stream on a very slippery metal footbridge, before climbing back up to Hubel Rippa, 1141 m, where cows rush to the electric fence to stare at me and from where there is a panoramic view back down towards the northern end of the lake and the lowlands beyond. At this point I am actually walking away from my day's destination and, not having seen any National Route No. 3 waymarks for a while, I wonder if I have missed a junction. But a bit further on I pick up the steep farm track that comes up from Schwarzsee Bad at the south-western corner of the lake, and a signpost confirms that I am going the right way.

A steep and sweaty uphill stretch along this track brings me to yet another isolated chalet in a clearing; this one is Wälschi Rippa, 1196 m. Here, yet again, the signpost points me off in what seems to be the wrong direction: this is definitely not the most direct way to the Euschelspass. It is, however, a much more scenic option than the direct route. A steep, zigzagging path quickly gains altitude in the forest, then brings me suddenly out into the wild and beautiful Breccaschlund valley, its bottom dotted with conifers, its sides dominated by the rocky walls of the Spitzflue, Chörblispitz and Schopfenspitz. The shady scree slopes below the high, dark cliffs are still holding a surprising amount of snow; even snowier are the north-facing slopes that close the valley off at its far end, below the narrow ridge that runs from the Schopfenspitz to Patraflon. I find a shady rock to sit on for half an hour while I sketch the view; several other walkers go by, most of whom seem to have dogs with them, and one of whom wishes me a schöne Sunntig… The Swiss do tend to do this towards the end of the week in anticipation of the weekend, but I think it's the first time I have been wished a nice Sunday at 11:00 on a Thursday morning!

The path passes the chalet of Brecca, 1400 m, then doubles back northwards again and climbs uphill to Rippetli, 1483 m, where I once again find myself perched panoramically high above the Schwarzsee. I have been walking for two hours but with all the twists and turns of the route, I am still less than 3 kilometres from my starting point as the crow flies. This northward detour is needed though, in order to turn the northern end of the Spitzflue and come back into the main valley that runs up to the Euschelspass. I start to pass people having lunch, sitting on sunny rocks or on benches in front of still-deserted farm chalets: the cows have not yet been brought up here for the summer season. Beyond Stierenberg, the path briefly runs between crags, and there is one place where a metal staircase has been installed to facilitate progress… most unusual on the Alpine Panorama Trail. All in all, the detour into the Breccaschlund valley has given this stage the most "mountainous" atmosphere since the days around the Säntis at the eastern end of the route.

I stop for lunch at 12:15, sitting down on the short grass before the path rejoins the main valley route at Unter Euschels. The grass is more or less dry and, for the first time this season, I am able to enjoy a short siesta in the sun after finishing my ham, cheese and apple. At 12:45 I set off again, aiming now to be in Jaun in time for the 14:32 bus to Bulle. A broad farm track climbs steadily up to Ober Euschels, 1550 m, the last chalet on this side of the pass, where two very small calves stare at me, trying to work out what I might be. Ober Euschels has diversified its culinary offering since my last visit in 2010: on that occasion, a sign simply said "BIER", whereas today ALPKÄSE is also proposed. Quite a few people are indeed sitting at the few tables outside the chalet, enjoying cheese and beer.

Above Ober Euschels, large swathes of snow lay either side of the track, although there are only one or two very small patches on the path itself. At about half pas one I reach the Euschelspass: this is the highest point of the official Alpine Panorama Trail at an altitude of 1567 metres, although my off-route detour over the Gulmen during stage 5 took me a couple of hundred metres higher. Framed between the slopes bordering the pass, the spiky peaks of the Gastlosen appear. Like yesterday though, the afternoon has clouded over completely, and these impressive little peaks are not seen in their best light.

The Gastlosen appear as the Euschelspass approaches
The way down to Jaun is short, steep and, for the first 40 metres or so below the pass, very muddy. There must have still been a covering of snow here a few days ago, and the water running off the hills has not yet managed to work out that it isn't supposed to actually run down the path. I drop down across boggy ground to the little mountain restaurant of Ritzlialp, 1510 m, then follow the restaurant's access road for a few minutes until another path, somewhat drier now, branches off across pastures where cows are grazing. The pasture is full of dandelions, a bright yellow foreground for the dark backdrop of the Gastlosen and the cloudy sky. A father and two children are having a break beside a big outcrop of rock; the children happily scrambling all over the boulders while Dad has a sandwich and a snooze on the grass down below. The last section down to Jaun follows a steep, stony path that runs down beside a deep gorge.

Jaun is noteworthy for its two churches and, especially when arriving from above like I do today, for its large waterfall. The fall looks particularly impressive today, after all the recent rain. I fill my bottle at a fountain in the village centre, then go down for a close look at the fall, which is spraying a wet mist for quite a distance around. 

The impressive waterfall at Jaun
  It is a quarter past two; my timing for the 14:32 bus is perfect. It takes three and a half hours to get from Jaun back to Lucerne, making this one of the longest trips home of the entire route. The bus takes me to Bulle, where I have to wait half an hour for the train to Bern; I use this time to take some notes and to finish the sketch that I started the previous evening on the bank of the lake at Schwarzsee. I had been hoping to use the remainder of my two weeks' holiday to string the next two or three stages of the route together, as they are all going to involve similarly long trips until I reach Vevey, another three days' walk away. It looks like the weather is not going to cooperate though, and it is looking increasingly unlikely that I will make it there before I go back to work next Monday.